Thursday, October 10, 2002

Bliss vs. Ross: different routes to similar ends

Published in the Current

Cape Elizabeth and South Portland residents of House District 24 have a choice of two men who both support increased education funding and health care reform, but have differing ideas about how to reach their goals.

Incumbent Democrat Larry Bliss, 55, is facing Republican Wayne H. Ross, 66. Both are Clean Elections candidates.

Bliss, director of career services and professional life development at the University of Southern Maine, became a candidate two years ago, as a last minute fill-in after the primary, because, he said, “I thought it might be interesting.” After he won, he found out he was right.

“It was both more work and more fun than I ever thought it would be,” Bliss said. He is proud of what he has been able to accomplish and wants to continue his work.

Ross, who retired as president of Southern Maine Technical College a year ago, entered the race this year with no prior political experience, because he is concerned about issues at the state level.

Bliss thinks the state should pay for schools what it said it would pay, 55 percent of the cost of education. He said the state now pays 45 percent.

If the state paid in full, he said, the money should be used for property tax relief and should not be used to boost local budgets, either for schools or for towns.

Ross looks at it slightly differently, saying the state should spend one-third of its total budget on school funding, as it did in 1992. Now the state spends about 27 percent, he said. Making up the difference would provide $160 million for property tax relief.

Ross would also like to revamp the school funding formula to reduce its reliance on property valuations. “It’s got to be fair and equitable,” he said.

Last year, with property valuations up and school enrollment flat, “Cape Elizabeth and South Portland got hurt badly,” Ross said.

He also proposed capping valuations for retirees on fixed incomes.

Bliss, too, wants property tax reform. In a meeting with a number of South Portland neighborhood associations, he heard a lot about the pressures property tax hikes are placing on residents. “The stories that got told are heart-wrenching,” Bliss said.

Bliss also knows there are hard stories about health insurance in Maine. He supports a single-payer system that would reduce administrative costs, thereby lowering medical care prices.

He also likes Jonathan Carter’s plan to charge businesses 7 to 13 percent of their payroll for healthcare coverage, which is lower than the 35 to 40 percent most businesses now pay for private insurance. “The total cost will be much less,” Bliss said.

Ross opposes a single-payer system, saying the state would not be efficient and has already raised medical costs too high with state mandates and regulations. Ross said liability and malpractice insurance costs are also part of the problem of expensive medical care.

Ross said the state should pay the full price for services provided to Medicare patients. At present, he said, the state only pays half, leaving doctors and hospitals to shift the remaining cost onto private insurers and uninsured people.

Both men acknowledge their ideas will cost money, not save it, in a time when the state budget is facing a revenue shortfall of as much as $1 billion for the next budget cycle.

Bliss suggested broadening the state sales tax to include more items. “We have the narrowest sales tax in the country,” Bliss said.

He also suggested looking at ways to tax visitors to Maine, such as the lodging tax, increased last year from 7 percent to 8 percent. “We’re still the lowest lodging tax in New England,” he said. Upping the tax to 10 percent, he said, would bring Maine more into line with other states in the region, and would raise revenue significantly.

Ross would make up the additional expense by stopping new programs that were funded in the last legislature but not yet started.

“If we haven’t implemented it, why do we need to move forward?” Ross asked.

Both said the state will need to set priorities and plan spending along those lines, to make ends meet.